by Lee Pace
One minute, 24 seconds remain. Thirty-five points for Carolina, 35 for N.C. State.
The emotional juice from the Tar Heels' just-unveiled chrome helmets with their mirror-like finish and light blue haze and the new navy socks and silver-and-navy shoes had worn off. The razzle-dazzle of a double-pass, reverse and flea-flicker so well executed in the first quarter had settled into a focus of trying to get Giovani Bernard, Eric Ebron and Sean Tapley into mismatches against N.C. State's linebackers and safeties. The Tar Heels burst to 25 first-quarter points, morphed into a somnambulant mid-game and ignited again with a fourth-quarter touchdown and field goal.
"We had some good plays dialed up and dropped some balls, we had several miscues up front where we turned a guy loose," Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. "Quite honestly, State picked up their level and played well. We just never got into a rhythm after that fast start. But the kids never quit-they kept playing hard."
The Tar Heel defense was purple and puffy after a series of jabs, crosses and haymakers through three quarters from N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, who'd thrown for five touchdowns and 459 yards. Carolina at first tried to do what it had done successfully against a vertically-oriented passing game at Miami--pressure the quarterback with essentially a four-man rush and play zone behind it. When that didn't work--the final straw being an 83-yard scoring strike midway through the second quarter--coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch decided to go with more man-to-man coverage and a five-man rush.
Their efforts to generate some perimeter pass rush included occasional uses of linebackers Kevin Reddick and/or Travis Hughes in three-point stances on the outside and the loan of tight end Ebron from the offense for a dozen or so snaps. The one-game suspension of Shakeel Rashad, a freshman used mostly in third-down passing situations, and the inability of the Tar Heels to generate any heat along the edge prompted the idea of using Ebron, an athletic aberration who knew the position from high school.
"It's real obvious we need two or three guys like that," Koenning said. "They make a world of difference. We've got to get some edge pressure. Ebron came in and abused their tackle. He scared the daylights out of them. They started sliding their protection to that side, so we started bringing some blitzes from the opposite side. They were max-protecting, and we'd slant two interior guys in one direction and have Reddick loop behind them. A couple of times their back couldn't find Reddick, and he either got to the quarterback or pressured him."
So now the Wolfpack takes possession at its 25 yard-line. On first down, Reddick storms up the middle, shucks the Wolfpack running back assigned to block him and sacks Glennon, prompting State coach Tom O'Brien to eschew the idea of any more downfield missiles. After a running play, Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora calls time out with 35 seconds left and State facing third-and-13.
"It looked like they'd made up their mind to go to overtime," Fedora said. "But I was leery about calling the timeout and giving them more time if they wanted to take a shot. I was scared to death. We hadn't stopped them a bunch of times."
Those on the punt team not already on the field for defense gather along the Tar Heel sideline. Roy Smith, the walk-on from the track team who'd fielded the last four State punts after Bernard rolled his angle in the third quarter, is ready to take the field. Up in the coaches' box, Anderson talks to QB Bryn Renner and they discuss the plan--how many yards they might have to gain with about 30 seconds to play to set up Casey Barth for a potential game-winning field goal.
"Even if we have to fair-catch a punt, we just need a couple of passes to get to the 30," Fedora said. "We might get as many as six plays in 30 seconds."
Fedora is also talking on the field with Gunter Brewer, who supervises the punt returners, and on the headset with special teams coordinator Dave Duggan about their options on fourth down. Fedora personally supervises the punt-block and punt-return unit and believed all week there would be opportunity against the Wolfpack to make a big play. He decides to call "The Wall," a return scheme that had sprung Bernard for a 70-yard return in the season opener against Elon.
"They are very basic on their punt team, they don't do a whole lot," Fedora said of the Wolfpack. "We felt we could try to get double teams and set up the wall. I didn't use the wall return at any other point in the game. It happened to be on the hash we want for that call. I contemplated going for the block and trying to make something happen. In the end, my gut said to go with the return."
State runs the ball once more and brings the punt team on the field. Fedora calls another timeout. Smith takes the field, standing at the Tar Heel 30 yard-line. Meanwhile, Bernard tells himself that if his ankle's good enough to withstand the 110 yards rushing and receiving he's gained in the fourth quarter, it can handle one more punt return.
"I told myself big-time players make big-time plays," Bernard said. "I told myself to get out there."
"It was fine by me," Brewer said. "It's like giving Michael Jordan the rock."
Brewer relayed the call to Bernard. With precise execution, Bernard would have a layer of navy-blue outfitted Tar Heels set up to his right side of the field. That Bernard would likely start from the left side set it up even better.
"My eyes lit up when I heard the return," Bernard said. "That's my favorite return."
State punter Wil Baumann cracks a 49-yard punt downfield, the ball forcing Bernard back to the 26 yard-line and about eight yards further outside the hash. It was, O'Brien would say later, Baumann's best kick of the day but one that didn't have the height he would have liked. When Bernard fielded the ball, he had six to eight yards of air between him and the first five Wolfpack players downfield.
"What you want to do is kick it high in the air and make him fair catch it, which we had been doing," O'Brien said, referring to the Tar Heels' six fair catches on eight previous punts. "You hang it up there so we can get down and cover. That was the idea."
Only Pete Mangum, lined up on the left of the Tar Heel formation, rushes the punter and that just so he's in the vicinity if Baumann mishandles the snap. All the other Tar Heels brush a State player to impede their paths downfield, then turn and race to a predetermined landmark to set up a wall. T.J. Jiles throws the first block that gives Bernard the cushion to start working against the grain toward the right. A.J. Blue knocks his man to the ground, then heads upfield to find someone else to hit. Tre Boston drives his man 15 yards across Bernard's path and into a second Wolfpack defender. Romar Morris provides an escort at midfield down the sideline. Mangum loops from behind and is the last man to throw a block at around the Wolfpack 40. From there it is pure speed and heart and valor from Gio Bernard.
"A perfect wall," Bernard said. "You can't draw it up any better."
His 74-yard touchdown gives the Tar Heels the winning edge that is capped a few seconds later by a two-point conversion. All of Tar Heel Nation goes postal with delight as Carolina ends its five-year losing skid to State with a 43-35 victory. The Bernard touchdown now takes its spot alongside Connor Barth's field goal to beat Miami, Bracey Walker's blocked punts in the Peach Bowl, Walter Davis's bank shot to force overtime against Duke and Michael Jordan's jump shot versus Georgetown as one of the most electrifying plays in Carolina sports history.
Where were you when Gio took it to the house?
T.J. Yates was standing on the 20 yard-line on the west side of the Tar Heel bench. The second-year quarterback with the Houston Texans had the weekend off and enjoyed a reunion with fellow classmate Da'Norris Searcy, now with the Buffalo Bills as a reserve safety and special teams fixture.
"I lost Gio when he first caught the ball," Yates said. "I saw him again when he hit the sideline and I knew it was over. After that it was just pandemonium on the sideline. Everyone knew two years ago that Gio was going to be special."
Raleigh photographer Jack Morton was on the 15 yard-line, between the N.C. State bench and the west end zone, aiming his camera to the action just as his grandfather, Hugh, had done so many years ago when Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice was scampering across this same ground. Morton likes the visiting sideline because it's less crowded than the home side, and for this moment in history he was perfectly positioned.
"Gio came into my view about 50 yards away, rounded the corner and you see the wall form," Morton said. "You could see this cavernous gap form. You could have driven a couple of trucks through there. I had to try to zoom out as he's coming at me, and I know I lost him when he swung past me. But that's okay. The drama was what was coming at me."
Linebacker Tommy Heffernan had just left the field with the first-team defense. As a second-teamer on the punt unit, he knew all the returns and pressures, and his pulse quickened as he trotted past Fedora and heard him call for The Wall.
"In every meeting last week, Coach Fedora said, 'This unit will make a game-changing play on Saturday,'" Heffernan said. "He was convinced of it. I play behind Norkeithus Otis, so I watched him. He got downfield, made a great block. Tre got two of them. They fell, one by one. Gio was opposite me at midfield and I knew he was gone. I started running down our sideline with him. It was unlike anything I've ever seen."
Don McCauley, one of Carolina's five representatives in the College Football Hall of Fame, was watching from the Pope Box on the north side:
"The explosion of noise was unlike anything I'd ever heard in Kenan Stadium," McCauley said. "What a play. Gio is so powerful, so strong, he's got that low center of gravity and that incredible spin move. And he's got one of the greatest stiff-arms I've ever seen. He's got everything. Beyond all of that, he's got a level of confidence and a spirit that you cannot beat him. That's contagious on the team."
Randy Jordan, a Tar Heel tailback from 1989-92 now coaching the Carolina running backs after a playing career in the NFL and coaching stints at Nebraska and Texas A&M, watched the play develop from the coaches' box on the south side.
"Gio is such a good kid, and he wants to be great," Jordan said. "Guys I know and that I played with that are like Gio, they are different. They bring out something extra in guys around them. Romar got him to the wall, then Romar went to the next level to get an extra block. When you have a guy as special as Gio--guys like Tim Brown and Rocket Ismail, who I blocked for-you have the attitude that if you get on a guy, something special will happen. Guys like Gio elevate everyone around them."
And so the Legend of Gio adds another chapter--from his 62-yard burst against Virginia Tech to his shoestring catch at Miami to his fumble recovery for a score at Duke. The punt return that beat N.C. State will be remembered, as the British rock band Pink Floyd so aptly put it, "All in all, it's just another brick in the wall."
Lee Pace (email@example.com) has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and has reported from the sidelines for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.